CAMPECHE CITY, Mexico The fiery red disk of the sun touched the
Gulf of Mexico’s horizon as it set off the western side of the
Yucatan Peninsula. The sight was enough to make tourists and
Campechanos smile joggers slowed to a halt and lovers kissed.
Campeche City’s 17th-century stone walls turned from gray to gold.
These walls owe their existence to residents’ need for
protection after ferocious pirates repeatedly pillaged the town
between 1559 and 1685. The buccaneers arrived by land, not by sea,
and plundered, not for gold or silver, but for palo de tinte, wood
used to dye the clothes of European aristocrats.
Stone walls linked by small fortresses and bastions (baluartes)
rise 26 feet on the land side and 18 feet where the water’s edge
used to be, creating the largest intact defensive city wall in the
New World. These walls that surround the Campeche State capital’s
historic center, along with 1,600 brightly painted, restored
Colonial-era building facades, were declared a UNESCO World
Heritage Site in 1999. Three times a week, a Spanish soldier leads
visitors up to the top of the city walls by fiery torchlight for a
Sound and Light show.
During the day, near the stark cathedral on the central Plaza de
la Revolucion, clients can board the 100-year-old El Guapo trolley
or its brother, Super Guapo, for a 40-minute Colonial City tour
that includes a portion of the waterfront walkway (malecon).
In a great example of re-use, most of the sentry towers and
fortresses are museums. The 1684 Baluarte San Carlos, once a prison
and armory, is the Campeche City Museum, complete with Spanish
armor and pirate exhibits. Baluarte de Santiago, from 1704, houses
the Xmuch Haltún Botanical Garden. Baluarte de la Soledad displays
Mayan steles, the carved stone slabs that declared a ruler’s
Up a hill, with a narrow, curving entrance to slow attackers,
Fuerte San Miguel preserves 19 cannons on its battlements. At
ground level, a Mayan archeological museum shows priceless
pre-Mayan statues from offshore Jaina Island and Campeche’s most
famous symbol, jade masks from Mayan Calakmul.
Before pirates inspired coastal wall-building in Campeche City,
Mayans lived along the coast and inland jungles for a thousand
Calakmul, deep in the jungle near the Guatemala border, was a
bloody rival of Tikal. Most of Calakmul’s ruins spread over 42
square miles, still buried by vines and tree roots. Visitors climb
to the top of the Structure II pyramid, as it’s called, once home
and later a tomb for the most powerful ruler, Jaguar Paw, for a
view over a vast carpet of jungle. Here blue morpho butterflies
flutter by, and orchids and epiphytes (air plants) hang at every
turn of the white limestone path around the site.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002, Calakmul is
also a Biosphere Reserve and protects the largest population of
jaguars north of Panama, among other species of wildlife.
Near Calakmul are other Mayan sites, like Becan, with another
pyramid and a mask of the sun god protected under glass, or
Chicanna, where a huge snake’s mouth with teeth along a temple wall
conjures up the Mayan underworld.
Just east of Calakmul, Xpuhil’s towers look like a crumbling
Babylon. At Balamku, west of Calakmul, visitors can see a
55-foot-long frieze carved with two earth monsters, a jaguar and
other animals. And 35 miles from Campeche City at Edzna is a
five-level pyramid to climb, and masks of the Mayan sun god as a
young man and in old age.
Between are uncounted mounds of other sites, spread around
villages where people swing in hammocks, surrounded by mango trees,
and exuberant flowering bougainvillea, tingeing blossoms with gold
as the sun sets.
Campeche State Department of Tourism
Where to Stay
The Hacienda Puerta Campeche, a member of Starwood’s Luxury
Collection, is located near Campeche City’s Land Gate. The unique
hotel has 15 rooms that were each originally individual
17th-century houses. Each air-conditioned room has access to the
interior courtyard and facilities, which include two bars, a
restaurant, a pool and a 24-hour business center.
Rooms range from $159-$392 per night.
Hotel Plaza Campeche is a neat, economical alternative, with a
friendly staff and good access to the historic city. Book rooms
above street level for security and less noise.
Nine single rooms are available for $60 per night, 58 double
rooms are $70 per night and 15 junior suites are $80.
For Calakmul-bound travelers, a stay in one of Chicanná
Ecovillage’s 32 bungalows can make for a rustic but comfortable
Clients should climb the two-story observation tower at sunset
to watch hundreds of colorful birds settling into the jungle canopy
for the night. Rates range from $100 to $120 per night.